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Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. plans to step down as chairman of the university's African and African American studies department next year but intends to remain at the university.

Gates, 54, said he will leave the chairman's position on July 1, 2006. He intends to continue teaching and directing Harvard's W.E.B Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

"Fifteen years is long enough for any chair," Gates said. "I would never leave the chairmanship if I thought the department was vulnerable in any way."

When Gates was recruited from Duke University in 1991, the Harvard program had only two professors. Gates is credited with expanding the department and raising the profile of African and African-American studies.

The program lost two high-profile scholars in 2002, when Cornel West and another celebrated professor, K. Anthony Appiah, both left for Princeton.

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